Happy 15th birthday to Green Day’s biggest, boldest swing
Sometime in 2002, Green Day went into the studio to work on a new album they were tentatively calling Cigarettes and Valentines. The band were tired, cranky, low on ideas and morale. They’d already sold a zillion records, criss-crossed the world and put out a greatest hits album (International Superhits!), something they’d never dreamed of in the days of playing warehouse shows in Berkeley—and arguably something no self-respecting punk band should do anyway. They talked about breaking up. And just like that, the masters for the album—which none of the members had felt all that strongly about to begin with—were stolen from the studio: Bad fortune, good opportunity.
Released in 2004, American Idiot wasn’t quite a reincarnation for the band, but it was close. They’d been experimenting with polka music, salsa, dirty versions of Christmas songs and, maybe most radically of all, not sounding angry all the time. In place of the compression that made their early albums so indelible came a strange new dream: Billie Joe Armstrong wanted to write something big and operatic. He wanted to write “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Weird as it sounds, it was more or less a logical next step. After all, the band were already playing the arenas—why not act like an arena-rock band? Anchored by two sprawling nine-minute song-suites (“Jesus of Suburbia”, “Homecoming”) and a loose unifying story, American Idiot wasn’t just their most musically varied album (it upped their quotient of military marches, glockenspiel and Celtic-sounding ballads by 100%), but their most emotionally varied one, too, by turns bratty (“American Idiot”), anthemic (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”), goofy (“She’s a Rebel”) and reflective (“Wake Me Up When September Ends”), sometimes all in the space of the same song.
And where they’d always been political in a casual, lowercase way, here they made their message bolder, channelling their frustrations towards a host of American infirmities, from widening class inequality to the ascendance of religious evangelism to the country’s looping preoccupation with war. In case it wasn’t clear where the band was coming from, Armstrong often performed the title track wearing a novelty mask of George W. Bush.
Most of all, American Idiot marked the moment when Green Day truly embraced their status as old-fashioned rock stars: ambitious, anthemic, a little clunky, but committed to the big ideas. The album became their best-selling since Dookie and was famously adapted for the distinctly un-punk setting of Broadway—a leap no band of their distinctly subcultural origins had ever really made before. In other words, here was a band by and for losers, finally accepting that they’d won.